The Chronicle Review

We've Always Been Deadbeats

Debt is not a new American way

Kevin van Aelst for The Chronicle Review

September 10, 2012
We've Always Been Deadbeats

Photo illustration by Kevin van Aelst for The Chronicle Review

My father was a repo man. He did not look the part, which made him all the more effective. He alternately wore a long mustache or a shaggy beard and owned bell-bottoms in black, blue, and cherry red. His imitation-silk shirts were festooned with city maps, cartoon characters, or sailing ships. Dad sang in the car, at the top of his lungs, mostly obscure show tunes. His white Dodge Dart had Mach 1 racing stripes that he had lifted from a souped-up Ford Mustang. The "deadbeats" saw him coming, that's for sure, but they did not understand his profession until he walked into their homes and took away their televisions.

Dad worked for Woolco, a company that lent appliances on an installment plan. When borrowers failed to pay, ignored the letters and phone calls, my father would come by. He often posed as a meter reader or someone with a broken-down car. If he saw a random object lying abandoned in the yard, he would pick it up and bring it to the door as if he were returning it. He was warm and funny, charming, but pushy. He did not carry a gun, but he was fearless under pressure and impervious to verbal abuse. If the door opened, he was inside; if he was inside, he shortly had his hands on the appliance; the rest was bookkeeping.

Repo men like my father saw people at their worst, and he was not inclined to be forgiving. This noble profession found him late in 1973, after the first oil shock, when Floridians and many others were drowning in consumer debt. My dad had his own problems, having lost his job as a regional sales manager at Kimberly-Clark. Repo man was a sudden and severe step down, but he was divorced with three hungry boys to feed and child support to pay. My younger brothers and I would watch from the car at a safe distance. At age 9 or 10, I would try to fill in the details of what had happened to the people who came to the door. This was perhaps the first phase of my training as a historian.

The story of my dad, Woolco's debtors, and the debts he collected is in some sense the story of America. Americans settled this nation by borrowing goods, land, and more abstract representations of those goods—land warrants, deeds, patents, concessions, and equities. They borrowed with the most optimistic assumptions about their capacity to pay. But when it became clear that Americans were not paying, banks began to doubt wholesalers and called in loans; wholesalers demanded settlement from retailers; retailers sent my dad and thousands like him out into the countryside to recall some portion of their property. I saw the downturn in 1973 unfold outside the window of a Dodge Dart, and in graduate school and after I became fascinated by many other slumps.

Pundits will tell you that the economic turmoil the nation experienced in 2008-9 is the first "consumer debt" crash. The trunk of my father's car—filled with signed debt agreements for consumer goods, most of which, he said, were good for nothing—suggests otherwise.

Since the days when I watched those repossessions, I have learned more about depressions, particularly in the United States. I now know that America has seen numerous periods of financial decline and panic where consumer debt was the most important failed asset.

Panics are not just about the financial health of borrowers. Panics have always been about debt and doubt. America's first panic in 1792 had everything to do with foreign lenders' doubts about Americans' ability to subdue Indians who blocked westward expansion. Recovery came when European investors judged New England smugglers to be safer borrowers than French revolutionary assemblies or Saint Domingue slaveholders and put their money back into American banks.

The pattern would continue throughout the 19th century. An economic boom after 1815 was conceived in a British scheme to sell woolen coats to Americans on credit. The panic came in 1819 when trade negotiations between America and Britain failed, smashing the market that borrowers used to pay back lenders. In the 1830s, British banks with too much cash bet on a speculative bubble in American cotton plantations; British and American banks went bust when the Bank of England doubted slave owners' ability to pay. The panic of 1857 resulted from English doubts about whether American railroads had clear title to Western lands and whether cash-strapped farmers on railroad property would pay off their mortgages.

When debts go unpaid, banks withdraw lending. A crisis on Wall Street becomes a crisis on Main Street.

And while cheap exports from American farmers contributed to the international panic of 1873, the crash started in Vienna and sloshed onto American shores when the Bank of England raised interest rates. The panic of 1893 was largely a byproduct of a sudden drop in sugar-tax revenues from Cuba, and it climaxed when Europeans doubted if American borrowers would repay their debts in gold. Finally, in 1928, Americans' doubts about dollar loans to consumers in Germany and Latin America seized up international bond markets and laid the groundwork for the crash of 1929 and the depression that followed.

In each case, lenders had created complex financial instruments to protect themselves from defaulters like the ones I watched from the car. And in each case, the very complexity of the chain of institutions linking borrowers and lenders made it impossible for those lenders to distinguish good loans from bad.

In 1837, for example, banks in the north of England discovered that the unpaid "cotton bills of exchange" in their vaults made them the indirect owners of slaves in Mississippi. In 2007, shareholders in DBS, the largest bank in Singapore, found themselves part owners of homes facing foreclosure in California, Florida, and Nevada. In both cases, efficient foreclosure proved impossible.

In those crashes in America's past, perhaps a repo man in a Dodge Dart with a million gallons of gas could have visited every debtor, edged his way in, and decided who was good for it. (My dad did accept cash or money orders for Woolco's goods.) But big lenders have neither the time nor the capacity to act with the diligence of a repo man. Instead, such lenders (let's agree to call them all banks) try to unload debts, hide from their own creditors, go into bankruptcy, and call on state and federal institutions for relief. Banks have also routinely overestimated the collateral—the underlying asset—for the loans they hold. When those debts go unpaid or appear unpayable, banks quickly withdraw lending; the teller's window slams shut. A crisis on Wall Street becomes a crisis on Main Street. Money is tight. Loans are impossible: Crash.


Scholarship on these financial downturns has its own long and checkered past.

From the 1880s to the 1950s, scholars told the history of the nation's economic downturns as the history of banks. Such an approach was not entirely wrong, but it tended to focus on big personalities like J.P. Morgan or New York institutions; it tended to ignore the farmers, artisans, slaveholders, and shopkeepers whose borrowing had fed the booms and busts.

Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called new economic historians (or cliometricians) came along with a different story. Using state and federal data, they tried to build mathematical models of the nation's financial health. Moving beyond banks, they emphasized what they termed the "real economy," by which they meant measurable indices of growth and profit. Taking the nation's health like a simple temperature reading, they used gross domestic product, gross income, or collective return on investment. Of course, none of those figures had been measured directly before the 1930s, and so the prognoses tended to vary widely.

Such economic models of financial health, however scientific they looked, tended to be abstract representations of an economy that was, in fact, more complex and more interconnected than they pictured. The models, for example, often assumed that old banks were like modern banks, sharing common accounting principles, or that because banks first issued credit cards in the 1960s, they offered no consumer credit before then. Drilling into historical documents for seemingly relevant numbers, then plugging those numbers into a model of a world they understood rather than the economy they sought to describe, the cliometricians often produced ahistorical work. Hence, one economic historian assumed that American barrels of flour sent to New Orleans were consumed in the South, though most were bound for re-export to the Caribbean. Another calculated that railroads played little role in America's economic booms by modeling a scenario in which canals could have (somehow) crossed the arid plains into the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Bear in mind, that same kind of intellectual hubris about models of economic behavior had awful effects in the recent past. Around 2000, Barclays Bank borrowed a simple diffusion model from physics (called the "Gaussian copula function") to suggest that foreclosures would have a relatively small effect on nearby property values. Economists tested it with two years of foreclosure and price data and agreed. Billions of investment in real-estate followed, often in indirect markets like real-estate derivatives and collateralized debt obligations. By 2008 the model proved shockingly inaccurate.

If some historians focused on the temperature of the "real economy," economists were becoming obsessed with the money supply as the single factor explaining most American panics. Again, a certain kind of blindness to the history of debt and deadbeats ensued. The most important book here was Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz's seminal A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963). It urged economists to steer away from stories of speculation spun out by Keynesians like John Kenneth Galbraith.

How, according to Friedman and Schwartz, can we separate speculation and investment? All loans are risky. The riskier they are, the higher the return. Some investments will fail. Markets need to clear, and those buyers who come along to sweep up bargains are not ruthless profiteers but simply maximizers who make markets work. Thus, the pair steered economists away from problems of risk and toward the problems of state intervention. They were the prophets of financial deregulation.

Their story about past financial panics had the advantage of suggesting simple solutions: Use the Federal Reserve to inflate or deflate the currency. For them, financial crises were mostly monetary. Thus, the 1929 downturn started with a financial shock and then was prolonged by an overly tight monetary policy. After A Monetary History became gospel, economics textbooks dropped their numerous chapters on financial panics because the policy solution became so clear; economists trained after 1965 know little about financial downturns before the Great Depression.

Yet a tripling of the money supply has still not fully pulled the United States and the rest of the world out of our current financial crisis—suggesting that our problems, and all the previous ones, were not just monetary. My dad would have pointed out that economists have misunderstood the problem. Crises are mostly about productive assets—the promises in his trunk.

Social historians (and I count myself among them) tell a very different story about financial panics, but we have our own blind spots. Since the late 1960s, we have often discussed the American economy as if farmers were coherent families of self-sufficient yeomen surprised by the market economy. That story of a sudden revolution misses the early and intimate relationship between Americans and credit. It overlooks how American stores provided consumer credit to farmers, plantations owners, and renters who settled the West.

Thus, American social historians have used the term "market revolution" to describe the period after the 1819 panic. Accordingly market forces rushed in as repo men like my dad became vanguards of a new capitalist order. The financial jeremiads of Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s and 30s against bankers and paper money became the natural outgrowth of frontier farmers' anger at a capitalism they had never seen before. But the store system of Andrew Jackson's day borrowed practices from the colonial store system that goes back to the 17th century, if not earlier. It was how the fur-trading and East and West India companies prospered. John Jacob Astor and Andrew Jackson were cut from the same cloth. They made their fortunes from their stores, and their store system made settlement possible.

Part of the reason we overlook the importance of credit in American history is our continued attachment to Marx's divide between precapitalist and capitalist forms of agriculture. That misses the relationship between farming and credit for most of the people who settled America. The more I study panics, the more I am persuaded that the pioneer American institution of the 18th and early 19th centuries was not the homestead or the trapper's shack but the store, an institution that sold foreign goods to farmers on credit, taking payment in easily movable settler products like furs, potash, barrel hoops, and butter.

Rather than imagining some golden age of subsistence, scholars in the Marxist tradition should look more closely at anticapitalist movements in the wake of panics. I include here not just the utopian and religious communities like Quakers, Shakers, and Oneidans but also the early Mormons, the Grangers, and the Populists. Those people understood what it meant for banks, and then railroads, to extend credit through stores. Often regarding capital as a collective inheritance, they built their own associations to replace such institutions of credit (and the railroad was an institution of credit) with locally managed cooperatives that distributed agricultural benefits in a way that served the broader community. The temple, the elevator, and the cooperative were attempts to break the chain of debt without demonizing capital.

From the perspective of business history, Joseph A. Schumpeter argued that business-cycle downturns came from periods of "creative destruction" in which new technologies undermined old ones. Outdated technologies, with millions invested in them, became instantly obsolete, leading to financial failures that cascaded to other industries. While Schumpeter, who died in 1950, once persuaded me, I think there is a mechanistic fallacy in the argument. Railroads, for example, have taken the blame for the 1857, 1873 and 1893 downturns. While there may be something there, the whole account seems reductive and technologically determinist. For example, canals, the Bessemer process, fractional distillation of oil, and washing machines are all revolutionary technologies that flourished during the American panics, not before them. They did sweep away older technologies, but rather than causing panics those technologies benefited by the uncertainty that panic created.

In a very different camp, neo-Marxists like Giovanni Arrighi and David Harvey betray a similar kind of reductive history, a latter-day Schumpeterianism. Their work posits a "spatial fix," a center of capitalism that then organizes and draws tribute from the rest of the world. For the late Arrighi, it was a kind of pump that sucked assets from elsewhere as states were forming throughout the sweep of centuries. For Harvey it is an investment in a capital city (Amsterdam, London, New York) and a new communication technology (telegraph, telephone, the Internet) that drew higher profits from everywhere else. Dutch and British hegemony became American hegemony after World War II. That suggests that these scholars have not really considered the tremendous influence of the U.S. Federal Reserve in reorienting international trade between 1913 and the 1920s. Their story seems more or less political to me: American empire comes when Americans claim victory in World War II. The economic material seems to be used in the service of a story about the rise and decline of empires.

If we follow the money, the American empire emerged during World War I, when the international flow of debt changed drastically. For Arrighi and Harvey, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are the pathbreakers of financial empire. But it is worth remembering that those institutions were explicitly designed to restrain the dirty tricks of financial empires of the 1920s and 1930s: No more American banks using gunboat diplomacy in Peru; no more Germans sending tanks into Poland to collect unpaid debts.


As a historian, I have learned the most about financial disasters from long-dead historians whose work blended primary, secondary, and quantitative material. Rosa Luxemburg, William Graham Sumner, Frank W. Taussig, and Charles Kindleberger would never have agreed about anything. Luxemburg, a renegade Marxist who read in five languages, described how the dangerous mix of a hierarchical production process with the anarchy of international trade could lead manufacturers to block free trade and embrace higher prices for their raw materials in the wake of a panic. Sumner, a laissez-faire Social Darwinist who argued that income inequality benefited society, carefully explained how drastic economic changes could follow from tiny changes in international trade deals. Put in a room together, each would have retreated to a corner to begin throwing furniture. But they and the others were storytellers who used a mixture of sources. Telling a story by looking through the trunk of assets and watching the damage afterward makes more sense to me than simple models of financial contagion, money supply, technological watersheds, or global fixes.

My father died before I started writing about financial panics, but my thoughts have grown out of our 30-year-long argument about financial downturns. Not surprisingly, he disliked "deadbeats," seeing them as the people whose false promises weakened our country. He probably had a point, and no doubt the executives of Woolco would agree. But I find much in them to admire, for defaulters are often dreamers. Viewing America's financial panics through the lens of numerous unfulfilled and forgotten debts that even the oldest banker cannot possibly remember can afford a perspective my dad would have appreciated: with my view from the Dodge Dart, the minute he rang the doorbell, when both debtor and creditor prepared their stories.

Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William and Mary. His book A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.